Refiner’s Fire

Refiner’s Fire

How are you going on your New Years’ resolutions? Are you keeping all those decisions to give up unhealthy food, exercise more, transform your life? No, I didn’t think so. Well, I didn’t even make any – you all know how I feel about exercise!

Are you ready for the Lord to come again? The prophet Malachi tells us that God will be like a furnace that purifies gold or silver, and that no one will be able to stand up to him. God’s purity is so intense that it will burn us, melt us, refine us.

Does that sound like a pleasant thing? No, it is downright scary,

if you think about the process of smelting silver, and Josiah has shown me a clip on you-tube where the fellow starts with a bucket of ore and ends up with a silver ring.

God will take us as we are to start with, unprepossessing and ordinary, looking pretty dirty and muddled up. We will not be rejected though, because God knows that we contain the pure precious metal. God will crush us and melt us, not in our bodies, but by changing our heart. If only we will listen to God, we can let him in, let him purify us. Yes it might be painful, yes we may have to let some things go, some relationships change, some habits end. If we want God to purify us we must allow him into our hearts.

But it’s not all without promise is it? Malachi goes on to tell us that the purified descendants of Levi – for that read inheritors of the faith – will be able to bring proper offerings to the Lord, offerings which will please him.

It’s a pure heart that pleases God, a heart that knows how to, in the words of the Cursillo t-shirt, love God, love each other.

Just when we think we might be understanding Malachi’s imagery, and absorbing the purifying analogy, he goes on again to make our duty as followers of God really obvious, really simple.

Anyone with an ounce of good sense and concern for their fellow humans knows that we shouldn’t cheat in marriage, or tell lies in court, or rob workers. How does this affect you? There are many temptations for infidelity in marriage these days – dating sites pop up on your computer daily, it would be so easy to click … Having been on the receiving end of a cheating marriage – my first one I hasten to add, I know how it shakes you to your core, taking away certainty, and leaving you unwilling to trust.

How about telling lies in court? That would seem fairly obvious too, but often when we are accused of something we try to put our behaviour in the best possible light, re-interpreting the facts. Incidentally, this is a bit of a test for the truthfulness of the Gospel – only a story that is true would portray the disciples in such an unfavourable light!

How about robbing workers of their pay? If you buy expensive sports shoes made by Vietnamese children for very little money, are you guilty of being part of a system that robs workers of their pay? It’s a difficult one, but we can do something about it. We can stand up for the poor, and make sure our own choices reflect Godly values.

But hang on, you say, how about the first bit, the one about practising witchcraft?

These days we are called to tolerance of all sorts of religious expression, of spiritual belief and creed, and some call witchcraft a religion and demand that its adherents be respected. But God tells us that it’s not for us. Now, I can’t see any pointy hats in here today, but how about trusting in horoscopes? Using crystals for their supposed healing powers? If that is a part of your life, maybe it’s time to ask God to clarify his plan for you.

Phew, that was a bit stiff wasn’t it? Malachi is so stern! Where is the hope for real human beings like us, flawed, warts and all?

Our Hebrews reading tells us that Jesus became flesh and blood, just like us, so he could show us the way, and he could die for our sins. He suffered and was tempted, just like us. He gets us, he understands our human condition. No matter who you are, what you may have done that needs to be purified, whether the process of refining has begun or not, Jesus died for you, so you can come to your God, a beloved child.

In our Gospel reading, we see a charming domestic picture which rather contrasts with the strict Old Testament prophet. A new baby is brought to the temple, an offering made, in the normal manner. Maybe it was a bit like the first time we bring our children to church, or the first Plunket visit, or another of those normal things that happen whenever there is a new baby.

But something different happened. Two very elderly people were waiting all their lives for something from God, a promise, a view of something, someone special. Simeon took baby Jesus in his arms and prayed the wonderful prayer which those of us who are used to Evensong know as the Nunc Dimittis.

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,’ in the King James translation.

This prayer shows such faith on Simeon’s part. This little squirmy baby, maybe crying and red-faced, was the one Simeon knew he had to wait for! Simeon could see the anointing on the baby Jesus, fully human, – and also fully divine.

The words Simeon spoke to Mary must have been hard for her to hear. From the day that she had said yes to the Angel Gabriel, she must have been wondering about the child she would bear, who he would be, what sort of life he would have. Here Simeon gives here some hints, and they’re not good.

Mary will suffer as though stabbed by a dagger. These are words that she would have pondered in her heart, between midnight feeds, nappy changes and the real business of raising a baby.

The prophet Anna is next in the picture, acknowledging who Jesus was, and speaking about him to everyone who hoped for Jerusalem to be set free. Maybe she had a bit of a reputation for her prophetic announcements, and I think people would have listened to her. I wonder whether they remembered, those who were still alive 30 years later, when Jesus began his public ministry? It was a whole generation, but one gets the sense of an expectation in the Jewish people, a longing for the Messiah, and the events around Jesus’ birth and temple presentation may well have been part of the story around Nazareth.

What could this mean for you today? When I preach on this reading in the Rest Home on Friday, I might pinpoint the two elderly people,

Simeon and Anna, to encourage our older brothers and sisters that being old is no disqualifier for service in the kingdom of God. But how about for us? Maybe if we take the image of a purifying God with the two elderly temple workers, we can see that there are no excuses to get us out of allowing God to purify us. It doesn’t matter if we think we are too old, or too young, or too busy, too sick, too important, too unimportant, too stupid, we are all precious Gold and Silver to God, and God wants us to let him purify us, to burn away all that is not of him. Will you let God in today?

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